The upcoming solar eclipse on August 21st in which the moon will entirely cover the sun for many eager viewers in the heartland of the United States has astronomers and scientists giddy with excitement. For more reasons than you might expect. Scientists are using this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seek confirmation for some of Einstein’s move groundbreaking conclusions made over 100 years ago.
Scientists claim that the solar eclipse that occurred during Einstein’s lifetime actually confirmed many of Einstein’s conclusions about the nature of reality itself. That is, scientists and astronomers claimed along with Einstein that the solar eclipse confirmed Einstein’s conclusions about space-time (i.e., the space-time continuum) outlined in Einstein’s most famous paper on general relativity. (Einstein’s paper on general relativity was itself a sharpening of his earlier theories on special relativity.)
Einstein reasoned that the gravity of the sun, which holds the Earth in its orbit, would affect other nearby stars during a solar eclipse visible from Earth. Einstein’s paper on general relativity came out in 1915 so it took another four years for those informed guesses to be empirically confirmed with the 1919 solar eclipse. The astronomer Arthur Eddington peered into his microscope on that fateful night in May and, lo and behold, confirmed Einstein’s guesses about the warping of space-time and the sun’s unique gravitational hold on nearby stars during a solar eclipse.
Less total solar eclipses occurred a half-dozen times after the big 1919 eclipse through the early 1970s, at which point more recent astronomers have noted that Einstein’s predictions were surprisingly on-point. That said, the change in gravitational pull exerted by the sun on nearby stars during a solar eclipse was less dramatic than many onlookers were anticipating since the sun only shifted the positions of other stars by a few degrees one way or the other.
What’s really exciting is that astronomers today are making use of extremely high resolution digital cameras than can capture changes in the stars’ positions at a more minute level that plates could decades ago. The ability to cram in more pixels and higher resolution into a single image is made possible by the staggering advances made in computer chips.
Astronomers will take shots on the nights before the eclipse, during the eclipse, and the nights following the eclipse to track the position of nearby stars. In effect, they’re gauging Einstein’s brilliance and his theory’s verisimilitude in the process.